Stage Door Review

Distant Early Warning

Monday, May 23, 2022

✭✭

by Justin Miller, directed by John Turner

Pearle Harbour & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

May 19-29, 2022

“I don’t want to set the world on fire” (popular song, 1941)

Imagine that there was an episode of I Love Lucy called “Lucy’s Lung Cancer Operation” in which Lucy has one and half lungs removed has to breathe supplementary oxygen the rest of her life. There might be a funny routine where Lucy accidentally pulls out her feeding tube, medication drip and plasma drip and then tries to figure out where they all go before the nurse returns, but overall the subject matter of the episode would be so depressing that no series of routines could make it funny.

So it is with the latest play by Justin Miller starring his alter ego Pearle Harbour. In an article for Intermission Magazine in 2016, Miller wrote that since he first put Pearle on stage in 2014, her shows have been getting progressively darker. He concluded, “I’m waiting to see how far we can push it”.

Miller’s latest outing for Pearle, Distant Early Warning, pushes the boundary of comedy pretty much to the limit. Comedy pushed far enough becomes tragedy as is evident in some of Molière’s greatest comedies like Tartuffe (1664) or Le Misanthrope (1666). Miller calls Pearle “an all-American world-wartime gal and superstar stewardess of the Air Force”, but in DEW, although Pearle’s spot-on timing and sharp wisecracks are still there,  Miller seems intent on degrading everyone’s favourite good-time gal until she is almost unrecognizable and neither she (nor we) is actually having a good time.

The show begins with a short film created by Nick Potter projected on the parachute that is hiding Jackie Chau’s set of 1950s-style consoles of switches, microphones and levers. The film is hilarious and, unfortunately, is the funniest part of the show. The film is a commercial done in 1950s television style praising the tobacco company Moon Mist and its cigarettes. By the end of the commercial Moon Mist  promotes its other products and services and they include pretty much all the products and services you could imagine. The company has obviously taken over the world. Moon Mist has even got into the space industry and has offered the lucky winner of a contest a five-year stint on its space station spa orbiting Earth.

The parachute drops and we see Justin Miller as Pearle Harbour in full makeup and jewelry, wearing stud-decorated Rosie-the-Riveter dungarees as she goes about her work. Pearle is one of the women hired as “listeners” at a station in the Arctic for the Distant Early Warning system. The DEW line across North America was a series of radar stations across the Arctic, from Alaska through Canada over Greenland to Iceland. In the 1950s the Americans conceived that the DEW line was necessary to detect Russian bombers coming over the North Pole that could threaten North American cities.

In Distant Early Warning, as in all the Pearle Harbour shows, Pearle exists in two different realities – one is the 1940s and ‘50s where she is most at home and the other is the present where she is aware that she is an outsider. In this play, although the DEW Line still exists (it was closed in the 1980s), the world has already been destroyed by war and climate change. Pearle is still working at her station, even though listening for bombers no longer has a purpose, because she has nothing else to do. What keeps Pearle going besides her inherent optimism it the fact that the winner of the Moon Mist contest is due to land just outside her station in three days – and that winner, Stacy Tracy Jr., just happens to be her boyfriend.

The vast majority of the show consists of Pearle going about her daily routine – dreaming of Stacy, lubricating the radar dish when it gets rusty, turning off the radioactivity monitor when it gets too loud, shutting off the attack warning system when it acts up, doing her daily exercises and, above all, tuning in to Stacy’s broadcasts to Earth hoping he will leave some message for her amidst all the advertisements he does for Moon Mist products.

The show is best when Pearle delivers monologues about the bad luck she has had with her previous nine boyfriends and when she sings and dances to songs from the old days. “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire”, a song recorded in 1941 and written by Bennie Benjamin, Eddie Durham, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler, is Pearle and Stacy’s song. A suitable number both because the song rose in popularity right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and because of its ironic reference to the present state of Pearle’s world. Pearle’s funniest sequence from her daily routine is her attempting to smoke and exercise at the same time.

The main problem with DEW is that, given Pearle’s unhappy history with her previous nine boyfriends, we know exactly what is going to happen at the conclusion. This problem would be minimized if DEW was a short an snappy show, but it is not. The show runs one hour and forty minutes or about forty minutes too long. Seeing Pearle go about her everyday chores three times becomes less interesting with each repetition.

What is meant to hold our interest is how Pearle declines in her three days of waiting from her usual perky self to a blubbering mess on the floor. Miller has decided that taking Pearle to some very dark places will compensate for the show’s repetitiveness. Between Day 1 and Day 2, Pearle experiences a terrible storm with gale-force winds that, since the destruction of the world, carry debris from fallen buildings with them. During the storm Pearle ventures outside, strangely unprotected by an outer layer, and returns stuck through in innumerable places with shards of glass.

These she pulls out while groaning accompanied by spurts of blood. Laughter at physical pain could not be more un-Pearle-like, but it is right up the macabre street of the show’s director John Turner, once “Smoot” of the horror-clown duo Mump and Smoot. Thus each round of Pearle’s exercises and monitoring the station’s various devices becomes more perfunctory because they are more painful. Her pain leads to ineptitude leading to more injury and pain. There must be some people who find this kind of humour funny, but the show feels as if it had been hijacked by Turner since it is so far beyond the faux-shocked pearl-clutching that used to characterize Miller’s beloved drag persona.

Some Turneresque touches are funny in a gruesome way. Pearle, for unknown reasons, launches into a strip-tease number, perhaps imagining a future night with her beloved. She doffs the dungarees with humorous difficulty and gets down to her undies at which point she starts to unwind the bandages on her arm. The trouble is that the skin flap they has held closed falls open. This is yucky but it is also a reductio ad absurdum of the striptease itself. It’s too bad Miller and Turner extend this ploy of laughing at pain and bleeding for such a long period.

As if this were not enough unpleasantness, Miller has Pearle begin to lose her mind. She begins to mix up her supervisor Deb with her co-worker Barb, who was vaporized. Clown does not have to make sense but it does have to be internally consistent. Pearle has been without Stacy for five years. Why, only now when he is just about to land right in front of her, does his absence sink in? The world ended while Stacy was in space. Why wasn’t she pushed around the bend then instead of right now? Pearle’s sticktoitiveness has kept her going so long, why is it suddenly failing at the last minute?

Thus, a show that starts out well become becomes progressively tedious and unfunny the longer it goes on. Sad to say, but this outing of Pearle’s long outstays its welcome.

Anyone who saw Justin Miller as a male character in 2016 in another post-apocalyptic play, The Pitchfork Disney (1991) by Philip Ridley, will know what a fine, nuanced actor Miller is out of drag. In DEW Miller has written his darkest Pearle Harbour show yet and has deliberately forced his delightful comic persona Pearle to suffer in kind of frightening, grotesque world of the future that Ridley created. Sadly, Miller demonstrates that Pearle’s once unbreakable optimism can indeed break down and will not carry her through any longer.

Why Miller wishes to demean and degrade his beloved character is an artistic decision which will not likely please old fans or bring him new ones. We’ll have to wait until his next show to find out if Miller resurrects the old Pearle or decides to push his comic character even further into the void and have her die in agony before us.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Justin Miller as Pearle Harbour. © 2022 Jeremy Mimnagh.

For tickets visit buddiesinbadtimes.com.